How to Fix a Stiff Neck or Shoulders
Neck and shoulder pain can be caused by something as simple as sleeping the wrong way—or by something as serious as a herniated disk. The fact of the matter, though, is that one can be just as agonizing as the other! To be safe, always take things gently when trying to loosen and stretch the area. It's important to ensure you don't make any injuries worse.
Shoulder pain is often not really in the shoulder at all—it's what is called "referred pain" from the neck. So if your problem is shoulder pain, it's worth treating the neck as well, to see if it helps.
If you know the pain is the result of injury, you should start with an ice pack. The aim is to stop inflammation in its tracks; otherwise it will be even more painful tomorrow.
Once the injury has settled down, or if you know the pain is muscle spasm, then a heat pack will work better. However, heat will make inflammation worse—so if there's the slightest chance there's an underlying injury, don't risk it no matter how tempting that soothing heat may sound.
In an emergency, you can buy single-use ice or heat packs. Usually you twist them to break an inner capsule, and they turn cold or hot.
If you often get neck pain, it makes more sense to get yourself a pack you can use over and over again. Look for dual purpose therapy packs—the kind you can heat up in the microwave or chill in the freezer, depending on your need.
Stretching for Neck Pain
If the pain is severe, don't attempt any stretches for the first 24 hours. For moderate pain, it's good to do some gentle neck stretching straightaway.
Gentle Neck Stretches (Lying Down)
Lie down on the bed. Now slide the back of your head away from your shoulders - think about lengthening the back of your neck. Your head will tilt forward slightly and your chin will tuck into your neck. Pull your chin in as far as you can and press the back of your neck into the mattress for 10 seconds, then relax. Do 3 sets of 10.
You may want to be alone when you do this exercise - if you do it right, it will make you look like you have a really attractive double chin (if not several)!
Next, still lying on the bed, roll your head from side to side. Don't try to force it or control it, just let your head turn gently and rhythmically from one shoulder to the other. You could even play some music to keep time to! Keep this up as long as you can manage - you'll find your range gradually increases, the longer you keep rolling.
Gentle Neck Stretches (Standing Up)
If the lying stretch is easy, you can do the same "chin tuck" exercise sitting or standing in front of a mirror. Looking straight ahead, tuck your chin into your neck (there are those gorgeous double chins again) and push backwards, stretching the back of your neck. To make this stretch stronger, you can put both hands on your chin and push back. Don't drop your head - if you keep looking in the mirror, it helps you hold the right posture.
These exercises can be done several times a day, whenever you remember.
Advanced Neck Stretches
If (and only if!) you can do the basic exercises without exacerbating your pain, it's time to move on to more advanced versions.
Please do not even attempt any of these if the basic exercises make your pain worse!
These are basically the same neck exercises you'll find at any fitness class - dropping your chin to your chest and turning it side to side - but there are important differences.
Sit on a hard chair with your back straight. Tuck your chin in (as for the basic exercise above), then lower your head forward. Move your head only, don't drop your shoulders or round your back, and keep pulling your chin in. Now place your hands gently on the top of your head - don't press down, just let them rest there. Hold for 10 seconds and release. Do 3 sets of 10.
Do the same thing to the side. Hold the edge of the chair with your right hand, to prevent you lifting your right shoulder. Keeping your chin tucked in, lower your left ear to your left shoulder. Lift your left hand and rest it gently over your head, fingers touching your right ear. Don't press down, just feel the weight. Hold for 10 seconds and repeat the whole exercise on the other side.
Look over shoulder
The third exercise is simply to turn your head from side to side. Keep your your head upright, and turn to look as far as you can over each shoulder without forcing it.
You'll notice I don't suggest an exercise to tilt your head back. That's because tilting the head back can pinch the nerves at the back of the neck, so it's best avoided unless you have been given the all-clear to do so by a professional.
For the shoulder exercise, you'll need a long thin bolster. If you have a firm cervical roll, that's perfect - otherwise roll up a towel tightly into a tube shape.
Lie on your back on the floor, and position the roll so it runs along your spine, from just below your neck to your waist (this can take some wriggling!).
Let your arms fall out to the side, palms up. Feel your shoulder blades dropping down each side of the roll and your chest opening up. You can put a thin pillow under your head if you're feeling uncomfortable in this position.
If your shoulder is very sore, just relaxing in this position may be enough. If you're ready to go further:
Bring your arms to your sides, palms facing your thighs. Now, keeping your arms relaxed and slightly bent, lift them straight up and take them as far over your head as you can. Your goal, eventually, is to touch the floor above your head - but don't force it!
Do this exercise quite fast, swinging your arms loosely over your head and back down to your thighs. Aim to do at least 100 of these swings. As you do it, you should feel your shoulder blades dropping more and more either side of the roll. Don't worry if you can't get far over your head at first, and don't force it - it should be a very relaxed movement.
How to Prevent Neck and Shoulder Pain
None of these exercises will help much if you're doing things in your daily life to make your neck sore again!
Buy a Good Pillow
One of the biggest culprits is your sleeping position. If your head is turned sideways to your body while you're sleeping, or scrunched into your shoulder, you're almost guaranteeing you'll have neck pain one day. Your head and shoulders must be in alignment while you sleep.
Many people skimp on a good pillow, because it seems ludicrous to pay seventy or eighty dollars for a chunk of latex. Think of it this way - it's not an investment in a pillow, it's an investment in your neck!
One word of warning - I don't recommend a Tempur pillow. They're comfortable because they mould themselves to your body - but that means if you lie in a position that's bad for your neck, the pillow will mould itself around you, and ensure you stay there! You may find a supportive pillow uncomfortable at first, because it's forcing you to sleep in a position that's not natural for you - but if your "natural" sleeping position was causing your neck pain, then you need to persevere!
The other major source of neck pain is the computer. Check out the ergonomics of your work set-up.
These days, it's very common for people to push their laptop or desktop PC towards the back of the desk, and have all sorts of notes and devices in front of it. Or they push it back so they can rest their forearms on the desk. Believe it or not, this is the reason why so many people today have neck and shoulder problems.
Sit back in your chair and reach forward with your hands. If you can't touch your screen with your fingertips, it's too far away - you may not be aware of it, but your head will move forward slightly to see it, and that puts enormous pressure on your neck.
Now bring your elbows back so they touch the sides of your body, letting your hands fall on the desktop. That's where your keyboard needs to sit. If your keyboard is even slightly further away, you'll have to tense the muscles in your arms to hold them in position, and that tension will flow up to your neck. Resting your forearms on the desk won't help! It's the angle of the upper arm that's important - it needs to be hanging relaxed from the shoulder, not reaching forward.
If you fix the things that are causing your problem, and keep doing the simple exercises for a week or so after the pain has cleared, you can beat neck and shoulder pain. As with all things, if pain persists, see your doctor.
This book was a life-saver for me when I injured my neck. The stretches are different from many of the standard ones and I found they gave relief where others didn't. I can't recommend it highly enough!
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- MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia - Joint pain
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- SpineHealth.com - Spinal Cord and Spinal Nerve Roots
More in-depth information about what causes back pain along with common disorders that people experience in their back and spine.
Questions & Answers
© 2008 Kate Swanson